Media controls in the offing?

The PTI-led coalition government’s proposed draft of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority law reads more like a complete negation of the ruling party’s pledges made in its election manifesto with regard to the media freedom.

The objectives of the proposed authority appear to be media control rather than media regulation. More likely those who prepared the draft in question were dictated by dictatorial desires rather than democratic aspirations.

Being aware perhaps of the dictatorial nature of the proposed draft law, the authors while concluding its Annexure-A admit that a conflict could arise between the federation and the provinces as well as create a perception of authoritarianism:

“In existing law as provinces have powers in various regulatory processes such as authenticating declaration and circulation audit, etc, eliminating their role will create alarms. If the provinces come up with their own laws then there will be conflict. Any centralisation and simplification that infringe upon their jurisdiction will raise concerns. It is proposed that provinces should be taken on board while drafting the law.

“Decentralised media regulating bodies is a form of democratisation. Creating centralised structures working under a single command is against the spirit of democracy. The media may raise voice against centralisation. The facilitation process should be brought under but the regulation and accountability processes should work under the ‘boards of stakeholders’ with ‘sufficient autonomy’ within the new authority.”

One hopes that the proposal to take the provinces on board while drafting the law would be done through an open debate in the media and elsewhere, including inside the Council of Common Interests. Also, the promise of allowing ‘sufficient’ autonomy to ‘boards of stakeholders’ would need to be openly debated to define in clear legal terms what exactly would be the extent of the term ‘sufficient authority’. However, the most questionable provision of the draft ordinance relates to the ‘power of the federal government to issue directives.’

It says: “The federal government may, from time to time, issue directives to the authority on matters of policy. The directives may be issued with regard to the matters relating to Article 19 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan. If a question arises whether any matter is a matter of policy, the decision of the federal government shall be final.”

This provision seemingly allows the government of the day to violate Article 19 with complete impunity by classifying as a ’matter of policy’ any matter that would undermine its own vested political interest or exposed its policy errors and blunders. In fact this provision arms the government with a deadly weapon capable of curtailing drastically the extent of freedom allowed to the media under Article 19.

People in general underestimate the state’s power of disinformation. If there is one single well identified producer of fake news it is the state! Authorities have put pressure on enterprising investigative journalists and their potential sources using special laws against them.

The ‘war on terror’ has brought another dimension to this constant tension between intelligence/security agencies and investigative journalists. It is true, of course, that reporting on terrorism also means reporting on counter-terrorism, and on the way the conduct of the police, the intelligence services and the judiciary as well. And the last thing the authorities want is an exposé of their failings, incompetence or turf wars inside the ‘state security apparatus.’

Too often secrecy is being used not to protect legitimate national security interests but to hide official blunders or even illegal actions from the eyes of the public. Unjustified cover-ups and suppression of truth regarding crucial questions of public accountability have proven to have seriously damaged the process of democracy.

The Express Tribune